If clearing out the refrigerator makes one cringe at the waste of food, do not read on; the waste in one home is just a small fraction of the global total. The amount of food wasted on fields, in grocery stores, at restaurants and, ultimately, homes is astounding. The United Nations (UN) estimated that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted (one-third of human food) every year, impacting starving populations, economic losses, water usage and countless other effects worldwide.
The wastage, which exists all along the food supply chain, amounts to economic losses of $750 billion, according to a report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO keeps tabs on growth of food for human consumption (and its waste) worldwide.
The report, Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources, is the agency’s first detailed look at food loss, food waste and the impacts environmentally from food production. (Food loss refers to items that are damaged and not consumed in the harvesting and processing side. Food waste occurs at the consumer or retail level, the expired items stores toss, leftovers tossed in restaurants, and produce that goes bad.)
Noting that farmers, fishers, processing plants, supermarkets, governments and consumers need to take action individual consumers need to do something, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) José Graziano da Silva pointed out that changes need to occur throughout the food chain to prevent food wastage from happening. As he noted, the world “cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste or be lost … when 870 million people go hungry every day.”
The UN report looks at issues created by the waste in different aspects of the world. One key finding is that the food wasted each year 1.4 billion hectares of land, which represents 28 percent of the cultivable land in the world, is used each year just on food that is ultimately wasted or lost. The water used to irrigate that acreage is the equivalent of all the water that flows each year in Russia’s Volga River.
Some other issues that impact carbon emissions, water and land use are regional in nature. For example, mold, rodents and insects destroy an estimated 10 to 20 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s grain because of inadequate storage and transportation. That grain would feed approximately 48 million people each year.
Other geographic concerns deal with vegetable, rice, fruit and other foods. For example, in Asia, cereal wastage, particularly rice, has a huge impact on water and land use. At the consumption phase, there is also a lot of waste in higher income areas. There us a higher wastage of vegetables in Europe, particularly in terms of carbon intensity. A significant amount of vegetables in Europe are grown in heated greenhouses, which uses a lot of resources to heat.
There are attempts to address some of the waste at all levels. One example cited by National Geographic, is Wal-Mart’s efforts to stop wasting so many eggs. The company used to toss every egg in a carton if one had a crack. Now, they are piloting a program to substitute a new egg with similar product specs (such as age) whenever possible. The company estimates that, if the pilot proves successful, the effort could save five billion eggs a year.
In another example, the FAO gave farmers in Afghanistan 18,000 small silos to store crops. The result allowed losses of grains and legumes to drop from over 15 percent to approximately 2 percent of the crops.
The FAO report took the first step by raising awareness. But, more efforts are clearly needed to ensure that one-third of food does not continue to be wasted in future years and can be better used to feed starving populations and deal with dwindling resources.
By Dyanne Weiss